By W. K. H.
From a talk presented to the Western Pennsylvania Numismatic Society, Pittsburgh, PA
May 5, 1987

As early settlers moved into the Pittsburgh area, they brought with them the money and accounting systems familiar to them. Some early Pittsburgh notes refer to pence and shillings; these denominations came to America with the British settlers. Other early notes are valued at 6-1/4 and 12-1/2 cents. These strange denominations were rooted in the centuries-old coinage of Spain, which was in widespread circulation in the colonies.

Pounds, Shillings, Pence, and Barter

English colonists in America kept their books in British denominations. They counted money in terms of pounds, shillings, and pence. Yet British coins were quite scarce in America. The colonists brought little coinage with them, and acquired little more through trade with England. People were forced to resort to barter. In New England, corn, cattle, and wool were used as money. Tobacco and lumber were often used as payment in New York. Beaver skins came to be recognized as a stable commodity, and were accepted as payment throughout New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.

For most of the colonial period, the area that would become Pittsburgh was a mere outpost in the western wilderness. The French had built Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio in 1754. In 1758 they abandoned their Fort to the superior forces of General Forbes, and the British took command of Pittsburgh and the surrounding region.

The oldest surviving Pittsburgh account book is a ledger of George Allen, a trader who had been appointed Indian Agent in 1759. The entries for June of that year show that he did a brisk business, delivering kettles, knives, gun flints, shirts, and other items in exchange for raccoon and bear skins. The accounts were kept in pounds, shillings, and pence.

The earliest known Pittsburgh paper money is an issue of merchant scrip in 1775. The typeset bills were apparently a standard form made for general use by Pittsburgh merchants. One issue was signed by an Ignace Labate (see Figure 1). All are payable in "Pennsylvania Currency", meaning colonial paper money issued by the state of Pennsylvania. The scrip notes were issued in denominations of six pence, one shilling, and two shillings. In 1777, Joseph Sommerville issued a one shilling scrip note at Hannah's town, near Pittsburgh [Newman 76].

Despite Indian hostilities the town slowly grew. The first newspaper was the Pittsburgh Gazette founded in 1786. Individual issues of the fortnightly paper were priced at six pence and yearly subscriptions were available at 17 shillings and sixpence. By 1794 Pittsburgh contained some 300 houses, and the taxes collected amounted to 253 pounds, 19 shillings, and 9 pence [Lorant 75], p64].

Imported Coinage

Although accounts were nominally kept in British units, only a small fraction of the coins in actual use were British. Nearly every ship brought with it a small quantity of coins from other lands. Relatively common were silver coins from France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Mexico, Peru, and Spain. Gold coins from France and Portugal were also often used. In fact, such foreign coins were legal tender in the United States until 1857. The following is a table of coins current in Pennsylvania, printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1751 ([Solomon 76], p39).

England placed heavy restrictions on the export of coins, and much of the coinage in the colonies drifted back to England in payment for manufactured goods. In fact, this "specie drainage" was one cause of the friction between the Colonies and the Mother Country, which lead to the American Revolution ([Solomon 76], p25).

A TABLE of the Value and Weight of Coins, as they now pa| in Pennsylvania
Engl. Guineas at114056
French Guineas113655
Half Johannes’s217694
Dutch of Ger. Ducat014024
French milled Piftoles16644
Spanish Piftoles17046
Arabian Chequins013623
Other Gold Coin, per ounce650--
French Silver Crowns076176
Spanifh milled Pieces076176
Other good coined Span. 
Silver, per ounce

Pieces of Eight

By far, the coinage most often encountered in daily use was Spanish. The coins came to the country via trade with the West Indies. By all accounts, the single most predominant coin was the Spanish Dollar, known also as the Spanish Piece-of-Eight, the eight-real piece, or peso (Figure 2).

The Spanish dollar was divided into eight rials or reals, usually written as "rialls" or "ryalls" in colonial records. The fractional coins were the four-real piece, the double real, the real, the half-real, and the quarter-real. ([Carothers 30], p25)

The Spanish dollar was so popular, and its use so widespread, that the Founding Fathers based the new American Dollar directly on the circulating Spanish standard. The following table gives the relative values and names of the various fractions of the American and Spanish dollars.

Table of Corresponding Denominations
CentsRealsName"Bits"Other names
1008PesoPieces-of-EightSpanish Dollar
504Four RealFour BitsHalf Dollar
252Double RealTwo BitsQuarter
12 1/21RealBit 
6 1/41/2Half-RealHalf BitMedio, Picayune

The origin of the term "two bits" is apparent from the table. The phase "not worth a picayune" came from the name of the smallest Spanish silver denomination. The table also makes clear the origins of the 6-1/4 and 12-1/2 cent denominations.

This mix of denominations in three different accounting systems led to other peculiar terms. Throughout the colonial period the real was valued at one shilling in New York. When the new national coinage system equated a real with 12-1/2 cents, the people persisted in referring to the denomination as a "shilling." A quarter dollar was known as "two shillings" long after the Spanish coins had disappeared from circulation ( [Carothers 30], p34). Figure 3 shows a colonial New York note valued at half a Spanish Milled Dollar or Four Shillings.

Decimal fractions came in very slowly, quotations taking such forms as $1-1/4, $3-5/8, $5-7/8.... ([Carothers 30], p 82)

Postal rates for the period 1816-1845 were 6-1/4, 12-1/2, and 18-3/4 cents for various distances ([Muscalus ??], p3). The Pittsburgh Intelligencer was 6-1/4 cents per copy in 1841 ([Carothers 30], p82).

Paper money denominations mimicked the coin denominations. After the War of 1812, economic conditions forced silver and gold from circulation. Throughout the country, paper issues appeared to fill the void. Notes for 6-1/4, 12-1/2, and 25 cents were common. A similar crisis in 1834 produced another flurry of notes. Muscalus' monographs list many of these notes ([Muscalus 48, Muscalus ??]). Figure 4 shows a 6-1/4 cent note of the Farmer's Bank of Virginia (1839), picturing a Spanish half-real coin. Table 3 lists the known Pittsburgh notes in 6-1/4 and 12-1/2 cent denominations.

Table 3: Spanish-based Denominations in Pittsburgh
6-1/41815Bank of Pittsburgh
6-1/41815Bank of Pittsburgh
12-1/21815Borough of Pittsburgh
6-1/41816Jonathan Boshart
6-1/41837Farmer's & Mechanics Turnpike Company
12-1/21837Free Admission News Room

Figure 5 pictures a 12-1/2 cent note of The Bank of Pittsburgh, 1815. This issue was printed in sheets of twelve notes, on sheepskin paper. The sheets had four each of 6-1/4 and 12-1/2 cent notes, and two each of 25 and 50 cent notes.

Figure 6 shows a 6-1/4 cent note of the Pittsburgh Farmers and Mechanics Turnpike Road Company. The road built by this long-forgotten company is now the present-day Fifth Avenue. At the time, the section from Grant Street to Point Breeze was called Fourth Street Road [Rimmel 87].


The odd denominations of many early Pittsburgh notes are enduring reminders of the city's roots. They are a direct link to centuries past, traceable to our ancestors' British origins and their extensive trade with the Spanish world.

These odd denominations still haunt us today. Nearly two hundred years after the introduction of the decimal system of money in America, stock quotations are still listed in terms of 1/8 dollars, a throwback to the Spanish real or "bit". In Allegheny County, the 6-1/4 cent denomination continues to puzzle workers in the Criminal Division of the Court of Common Pleas. A rubber stamp, used daily, records a fine of 6-1/4 cents, assessed to each prisoner at sentencing. The fine is no longer collected, but it is duly recorded just the same [Smith 85].


[Carothers 30] Neil Carothers Fractional Money. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1930.

[Hoober 85] Richard T. Hoober. Pennsylvania Obsolete Notes and Scrip. The Society of Paper Money Collectors, 1985.

[Lorant 75] Stefan Lorant. Pittsburgh, The Story of an American City. Authors Edition, Inc., 1975.

[Muscalus 48] Use of 6-1/4c and 12-1/2c Notes Prior to the 1860's. The Nurmismatist 61(10):685-688, October, 1948. The Numismatist is the official journal of the American Numismatic Association.

[Muscalus ??] John A. Mescalus, Ph.D. Paper Money of the 6-1/4 Cent and 12-1/2 Cent Denominations. Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine , 19??.

[Newman 76] Eric P. Newman The Early Paper Money of America. Western Publishing Co., Inc., 1976.

[Rimmel 87] William M. Rimmel Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 1987.

[Schilke 64] Oscar G. Schilke and Raphael E. Solomon America’s Foreign Coins The Coin and Currency Institute, 1964.

[Smith 85] Carole Patton Smith Few Can Make Sense of County Inmate Fine. Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, December, 1985.

[Solomon 76] Raphael E. Solomon. Foreign Specie Coins in the American Colonies. In Eric P. Newman and Richard G. Doty (editor), Studies on Money in Early America, chapter 4, pages 25-42. The American Numismatic Society, 1976.